Over the past couple of years, programs in Jewish Studies have been catapulted to the frontlines of heated public debates over academic freedom, civility, and the limits of free speech. All too often, these debates have pitted Jewish organizations, Jewish students, and Jewish faculty against one another, wreaking havoc on the intellectual and social climate on campus. Part of this is due to the prevalence of self-appointed watchdog groups and advocacy organizations who have taken it on themselves to monitor and report speech on campus (among others, AMCHA, Campus Watch, the David Horowitz Freedom Center, and, perhaps most notoriously, Canary Mission). While couched in terms that ostensibly protect Jewish students from hostility, the result is the creation of a climate of paranoia and even bullying against any student and/or faculty member—Jewish or non-Jewish—who deviates from the political ethos espoused by these groups. In contrast to the liberal arts ideals of responsible discussion, engagement, and openness, they promote a military-like binary of "us" versus "them."
Another reason that Jewish Studies has emerged on the frontlines of these debates over academic freedom has to do with the fractious conversations over Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), which have not only splintered and isolated Jewish groups, but have also engendered a dichotomous campus climate in which the violence of macropolitics has come to roost locally. BDS is now a litmus test for determining everything from permitted speakers and appropriate funding to hiring and firing decisions. For many Jewish organizations (not to mention networks of faculty, such as the Academic Engagement Network and the Israel on Campus Coalition), monitoring, reporting on, and combatting BDS is now the most urgent imperative. Opponents of BDS argue that the boycott of Israel enacts a monolithic, singular punishment on Israel by demonizing and delegitimizing Israel's right to exist. Supporters of BDS argue that it is a legitimate, nonviolent form of protest and solidarity with Palestinian society. Neither side, however, countenances nuance, nor considers if there could be an iota of truthfulness in the position of its "enemy."
And overlaid on all of this is the specter of antisemitism, which not only informs but also haunts and sometimes even deforms these discussions. Antisemitism certainly has real, contemporary manifestations within the academy and beyond, which must be vigilantly fought; however, the term is sometimes deployed as a blanket charge to stifle difficult conversations, as in the recent discussions on tolerance convened by the University of California Regents, which, initially, equated anti-Zionism with antisemitism. It is possible to be anti-Zionist without being antisemitic, and there exists a diverse intellectual and religious lineage of anti-Zionist thought that is quite distinct from the tropes of antisemitism. (It ranges from advocates of a Jewish-Arab binational state to the Jewish Labor Bund Party in the early twentieth century to contemporary Orthodox Jewish sects who see Zionism as a violation of divine messianism.) It is possible—for varied reasons—to reject a nationalist political ideology without hating Jews tout court, and it is possible to embrace an honest confrontation with the history of the Nakba without impugning Israel's right to exist. But to do so would be to occupy spaces of nuance and grayness, spaces that, in my estimation, are almost completely gone.
While I certainly worry that Jewish Studies (both the academic discipline and the institutional formations that support it, mainly research centers) is becoming more dichotomous and less open, my greater concern is that Jewish Studies and, by extension, the university itself—is threatened by the political and economic forces that believe they are protecting Jewish Students and faculty in the first place. These forces are represented by certain advocacy groups, funders, politicians, and various thought leaders who treat academic freedom as an atavistic vestige of a bygone world and caricature the value of the open university. The representatives of these forces believe the university needs to be protected from speech, ideas, and people that they consider to be dangerous to Israel. They believe that the faculty can no longer govern themselves but need guidance and scrutiny from external groups (sometimes in partnership with certain students, faculty, and administrators) in order to make funding decisions, hiring and promotion decisions, and programmatic decisions based on political criteria that align with their world views. Anything that deviates from these views, anything that could be seen as giving ammunition to the advocates of BDS, or anything or anyone that questions Zionism is immediately attacked. These interventions have happened at numerous universities, including my own, and do not merely imperil Jewish Studies. If they are given standing, these interventions threaten the foundational principles of the university. They imperil faculty governance, free speech, the protections of tenure, and the principles of free and open inquiry. It is quite unfortunate— and deeply ironic—that these are the very principles, which, just a few decades ago, diversified higher education and gave rise to American Jewish Studies programs and centers for Jewish Studies in the first place.
Today, however, Jewish Studies programs are placed in an exceptionally precarious position of either alienating their base of community support or becoming complicit in the erosion of the ideals of the university, usually by their silence or quietism. While certain Jewish organizations such as Open Hillel, Jewish Voice for Peace, and even J Street have attempted to support speakers and programs with alternative views on Israel and Zionism, these groups have remained marginalized and largely excluded from the mainstream Jewish community and its advocacy efforts on campuses. Their members are painted by external watchdog groups as self-loathing Jews who affirm the narratives of the Nakba, Palestinian rights, and Israeli apartheid and, thus, are no better than traitors. This either/or, with-us or against-us narrative is corrosive and has brought about a staggering closing down of debate, historical perspective, and possibilities for ambiguity, multiple narratives, and nuance.
In my view, Jewish Studies programs must model and ardently defend academic freedom by upholding the principles of faculty governance, faculty autonomy, open inquiry, and rigorous debate. Jewish Studies programs and centers—perhaps now more than ever—have a fundamental mandate to be free and speak freely. As such, they can provide leadership in addressing campus polarization and help bridge the gap between the community and the academy by serving the larger intellectual, ethical, and civic values of our democracy. This is the public mission of Jewish Studies worth investing in, fighting for, and defending most urgently.
Todd Samuel Presner is the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Director of UCLA's Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies. He is professor of Germanic Languages and Comparative Literature, as well as chair of the Digital Humanities Program at the University of California, Los Angeles. His most recent book is a coedited collection, Probing the Ethics of Holocaust Culture